Saturday, May 14, 2005

"Dark Age" Eurpean History

Announcements: There is a new poll on the sidebar, please take part in it. You can also tell me exactly how you found this site in a comment. During the Pax Romana, or peace of Rome, the tribes in Germania were more or less in control. Unfortunuately this was suddenly ended when there was a huge population boom in Germany, a Crisis for Rome followed. The empire just barely survived that but already it was cracking severely. In a few hundred years, the ever-growing and moving peoples of Germania took over almost all of the Western Roman Empire. Visigoths settled in Spain. Franks in Gaul, or present-day France. And soon the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons would begin the invasion of modern Great Britain. In Italy itself the Ostrogoths and Lombards were staking their claim. While in Carthage, the Vandals had taken over many of the Roman African possessions. In the East meanwhile, the other main ethnic group, Slavs, were also spreading quickly. They soon settled in large parts of the Balkans and other areas east of Germania. All these movements resulted in permanent and far-reaching ethnic restructurements. Most of the native Northern Europeans are descended from these people. An interesting thing though is to look at how their languages changed. Since practically all of the new areas conquered by the Germanics were formerly Roman, they took up a lot of Roman culture, including parts of the Latin language. The Franks and Visigoths based almost their whole languages on Latin. French an Spanish are descendants of the dialects these people spoke while they were learning the languages. Those tribes that settled closer to the original Germania still spoke the Germanic languages, although Latin definitely did affect them. Those that settled in modern Britain also spoke Germanic languages. These however were strongly influenced by first Celtic, then Norse, and finally from its many contacts with the French. The two main sources of Latin introduction in English are probably from those that spoke the original language in the Britain, and later on from the French version. German itself may have had one of the least Latin impacts, since there was not much of a Latin base in it to start with, any influences were probably from later rulers who believed it was a good language to learn and encouraged its use. The Dark Ages is what many call the period between the fall of Rome and about the year 1000. During this time the centuries-old Roman political system was gone and had to be replaced. Most of the natives had relied on the welfare system of Rome to thrive in their cities or farms. But now this was gone. The new Germanics of course knew little about the Roman ways, except for those that had studied them. But most of the ordinary Germanics were simple farmers who knew little besides what had been passed down from generation to generation. These people were also the new majority, and this caused problems. The old economic, political, and social systems were changing radically. A kind of Great Confusion followed, people had little idea of what was going to happen.

The main way this could have been stopped is if the Roman technology was continued. But that was definitely a problem. Many Roman cities had been destroyed or abandoned, the educated classes had been fleeing from the Germanic onslaught and were scattered. As I said before, few new how to read the Latin texts, or what engineering the Romans used. During the Great Confusion Europe suffered from a major breakdown of communication, political, and economic systems. Also the literati class was rare, those that existed were involved in religion or politics. Except for some exceptions, those in religions were concerned mainly with religious matters. And politics is politics, most lords were concerned about how to effectively plunder the next enemy village, get the most money, or kill the new neighbor. Most, not all, were like this, and for the present the other technological achievements were not used. So the three systems and the literati class are 4 of the basics needed for a complex civilization, without these, Europe slid back into a less complex rural society.

The Great Confusion ended when people knew what to do, they chose the simplest and quickest method to stability, make a village and start farming. The once great cities and large estates of Roman life were quickly replaced by a hard village life. Each particular tribe or clan would have several closely connected villages, the head of them would swear fealty to a kind of king that would hold some tribes or clans together, in case of some great need for unity like a great new war. This was not exactly feudalism, more like tribal warlords, the villages are most important and they are all loosely held together.

Eventually though, civilization started to come back. The literati and stability was growing steadily. There was now a sense of order provided by the new life, a kind of purpose of knowing what to do, what's going on, and what may happen. The literati provided the ability to improve things. Now that things were getting closer to normal, some of the kings and rulers would be interested in the more complex technologies and philosophies of the classicals. While not a complete Renaissance, it was definitely a step forward. It was during this time that the foundations of modern Europe were being established.

This period was marked by the rise of Charlemagne, a French ruler who tried to revive the Roman order. He respected learning and encouraged it too. His empire included France, parts of Germany, and northern Italy. It was broken up after his death among the sons. The progress made was soon gone but it was definitely a sign things were ready to leap forward. Charlemagne may have come to early, Europe was still in a relative isolation, the knew little of the more advanced civilizations of the East.

This order and stability came in just in time, the new wave of invasions was starting, that of the Vikings. These soldiers were almost invincible. They were amazingly skilled and aggressive troops by themselves, and they often surprised the locals. They did much damage and took quite a lot of lands. The kings at the top were unable to deal with all these harassing attacks that happened everywhere seemingly, they therefore shifted the responsibility of resisting them to the local lords. In return this lords were given much power and wealth. Feudalism had arrived. Now the life of an average peasant revolved around the manor. Much of the land was divided in manors, which the lords controlled. They allowed peasants to live on their land if they worked it and gave a large portion of it to the lords. For now, the isolation was too prevalent to allow large-scale trade and mercantilism, trade involved simple barter of goods between people. Since the economy was mainly agricultural, the only products in demand were mainly produce and farm tools. Since the population was widely spread, the suppliers of these demands had to stay local and meet local needs. A craftsman would only have the resources to supply the needs of maybe 10 sq. miles. Because of the manor system, there would not be many people in that area. This would change quite soon though.

The Vikings themselves caused an enormous impact; they created more permanent ethnic changes and were the first to explore large areas. Thanks to their master seamanship, they were able to travel to all sorts of places. Many actually entered the Mediterranean. Some of these expeditions lead to permanent colonies. They brought with them their culture and technology. One of the most notable of these colonies was Normandy, where a mix of Viking and Celtic peoples lived. Still, the kings of the Viking homelands in Scandinavia were not able to keep these colonies under one roof. The settlements were eventually absorbed into whatever European places they were in. Because of this lack of unity, a major economic revolution still had not come.

The one thing that changed all of this and finally pulled Europe out of its economic downtrend was something that did not even happen in Europe itself. It happened in a little-known place, mainly important because of its religious aspects, the Holy Land. The event, the Crusades. This period is now often noted for its religious, military, and political sides. Many acts of heroism, legends, and tragedies happened to both the Crusaders and the Muslims. But what I will most stress in here is the economic impact, which was as great or greater than any other event in the Middle Ages.

While some of the Crusaders believed they went to fight for God, they realized that there were things they could only have imagined. All most knew about the city of Jerusalem and it surrounding areas was that it was were some of the most important people and events in Christianity came from or happened. But when they came they knew it was much more than that. For centuries Muslims in the Middle East had continued trade with Africa, India, and the Orient. Goods from all over the world came together in the markets of Baghdad, Damascus, and Jerusalem. There were spices, silks, salt, textiles, exotic foods, perfumes, and countless other goods the Crusaders had never seen before.
Some of the Crusaders came home with samples of these goods and tales of the great riches. A few shrewd merchants and politicians were quick to take advantage. Pooling together all their resources, they invested in some exploratory and possible trade expeditions. Many of these were from Italy, where some of the best Mediterranean ports were located. When the trade parties came home, the course of history changed forever.


Tom said...

The "feudalistic" structure of society can be traced back earlier, to the hyperinflationary anarchy of the 3rd century, which broke down the monetary system and halted division of labor. Diocletian's Tetrarchy added to this break-down a structure of coercion: farmers bonded with property; heirarchical order of government from duces up to the emperor; price, interest, and wage controls; and the return to a rudimentary agricultural society.

GeoBandy said...

Whew! Good narrative covering an awful lot of ground. I do think you may be understating the importance of Charlemagne and the Christian monks (especially the Irish monasteries). The monks preserved a great deal of learning and knowledge by copying and recopying the texts that could be found. With the advent of Charlemagne and his Christianizing of much of Europe (often by perhaps "questionable" means) this preserved learning also began to spread slowly through the ruling classes and the churches, and while very few people could actually read, you begin to see the revival of architecture, engineering, technology...and the orderly keeping of records. Europe never really backslid entirely from the age of Charlemagne. There were of course, the usual ups and downs, and progress and regression varied from place to place and time to time.

And you are absolutely right about the importance of Latin. Not only did it influence the other languages, but it remained itself the "language of the learned" for centuries.